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BLM director wants to issue more permits for oil, gas

Carbon County Commissioner John Jones, left, discusses land use issues with BLM State Director Juan Palma during one of the director's visits to Carbon County this fall.

Vernal Express reporter

The Utah Bureau of Land Management state director was recently quoted as saying he plans to issue more drilling permits for more oil and gas drilling to occur.

Juan Palma's comment to a Salt Lake television station offers a glimmer of encouragement to oil and gas industry managers and local officials in eastern Utah.

Palma said the BLM plans to issue more permits by focusing on the backlog of drilling permit applications that currently choke the process.

"The permitting process will not be streamlined or changed in any way," said Mitch Snow, Utah BLM spokesperson. "We plan to put more emphasis on getting leases and permits out faster."

Snow said that despite limited staff, the BLM will be doing more by placing a priority on oil and gas leasing and permitting.

Statistically, there is little difference between the number of approved BLM permits in 2009 and 2010. At the end of the federal fiscal year in October, roughly 600 applications for permits to drill were approved through the Vernal BLM field office.

These numbers do not include all Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining permits for state and private lands.

For both state and federal agencies, the slowdown in drilling permits came about with the economic downturn in late 2008 and early 2009. During the summer, stricter federal regulations were introduced by the administration after BP's oil-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. These regulations were intended to provide greater environmental protection, but critics contend that the new policies brought the BLM permitting process to a standstill.

"The reforms had a negative affect locally on the energy economy by weakening the industry on federal lands," Uintah County Commissioner Darlene Burns said in September.

BLM permitting follows NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) regulations, which evaluate approval based on the proposed action. Approval can be a lengthy process, particularly where there are multiple potential impacts to the environment.

Nothing of what director Palma recommends will change compliance procedures to federal NEPA regulations. In additional to regulatory concerns, Palma cites litigation by special interest groups as slowing the approval process. The Obama Administration's preference has been to resolve challenges before allowing permitting.

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